MARYSVILLE — In September, Ellen Muench began her 17th year working with students in Marysville public schools as a speech pathologist.
Weeks later, on Oct. 18, she was fired — a career paused, a six-figure salary gone.
She didn’t do anything wrong. It is what she wouldn’t do, or, as she explained to the School Board earlier this month, couldn’t do because of her beliefs. She did not get vaccinated against COVID-19, as mandated by the governor, or undergo random tests for the coronavirus, as required by the district of those with exemptions like hers to keep their jobs.
“Sorry, I’m a little emotional so you have to excuse me,” she said amid sobs during the Nov. 3 virtual session. “It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been terminated for my beliefs. I was told I had a sincere religious belief, but I must submit to random COVID testing. Asking me to submit to testing when I do not have symptoms and I have not been exposed is discrimination.”
The outcome could have been different had Muench worked elsewhere. Getting a religious exemption, as she did from Marysville, has not been hard for hundreds of public school workers across the county. However, what districts require of those unvaccinated workers varies, and the process can still lead to people losing their jobs.
In the Everett School District, for example, unvaccinated employees with religious exemptions do not face regular or random testing. In the Edmonds School District they do, every week. In the Arlington School District, wearing a KN95 mask will suffice. However, those who choose to wear a different face covering must get tested every other week.
Muench was one of five in the Marysville School District to receive non-disciplinary terminations Oct. 18 for not complying with the mandate. She said she asked why the district felt it had to follow the mandates in this manner.
“I was told it was for funding and to make people feel safe. So children are going without services, I don’t have a job and the school doesn’t have an employee because of the choices the district is making to secure funding and make people feel safe,” she said.
Gov. Jay Inslee issued the vaccine mandate in August for state employees and health care workers, as well as those working in educational settings, including public, private and charter schools, most child care and early learning facilities, and higher education.
It took effect Oct. 18. By that date, employees had to provide proof of full vaccination or have obtained an exemption for religious or medical reasons. Absent one or the other, they could face termination.
A total of 470 elementary and secondary public school workers lost their jobs when the October deadline arrived, including 37 who worked in Snohomish County. Nearly 1,900 state workers did as well. And Nick Rolovich, then head football coach at Washington State University and the state’s highest paid employee at $3 million per year, received a nondisciplinary termination. He declined to get vaccinated and his request for a religious exemption denied. He’s pursuing legal action.
An exemption alone doesn’t guarantee employment. Employers have crafted additional coronavirus protection requirements, also known as accommodations, for unvaccinated workers. Employees who don’t or won’t comply with those would be let go. Sometimes accommodations can’t be found for unvaccinated workers due to the nature of the job, like a state corrections officer, so they get laid off anyway.
Public school districts in Snohomish County and across the state are approaching enforcement of the mandate in roughly the same manner. When it comes to exemptions, they are dishing them out pretty much upon request, with some districts getting a larger percentage of workers wanting them than others.
In Darrington, 15 of 73 employees, or roughly one in five, received an exemption and no one lost their job when the mandate took effect. In Arlington, 115 workers, or about 16% of the 713 people on payroll at the time, received exemptions. Two people were terminated.
Contrast that with Everett, which tallied 92 exemptions among its 2,325 employees. Four people lost their jobs. The Northshore School District had 115 out of its 2,931-person workforce receive exemptions. That’s 3.9%. One person lost their job, based on data provided to the state and collected by The Daily Herald.
Statewide, 10.3% of public school employees, or 16,027, had an exemption when the directive kicked in last month.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said that number didn’t surprise him.
“Different employers will always make different decisions,” he has said, always noting there are 295 school districts run by 1,477 elected directors.
He anticipated rates would be lower in large urban districts and higher in small rural ones. It’s the inverse of vaccination rates in those areas, he said.
“This vaccine followed a lot of the political culture out there,” he told reporters last month. “I definitely expected more school employees, particularly in those vaccine-hesitant areas, to mirror their communities.”
Decisions on exemptions are left to each school district. Districts only need to decide if an employee’s belief is “sincerely held.”
Federal law is clear, Reykdal said. It doesn’t have to be a longstanding belief. It doesn’t have to be affiliated with a formal church organization. It can be a recently adopted belief, he explained.
“Obviously, this has been one of those interesting gray areas and challenging for folks,” Reykdal said. “It really was about individuals describing this deeply held belief.”
If a district doesn’t feel it is a sincerely held belief, they can certainly ask further questions, he said.
“You could not walk in and simply say my church doesn’t believe in this and get an exemption if your church hadn’t made made that statement publicly,” he said.
One mandate, two approaches
Some written requests shared personal beliefs. Some contained the same explanations word-for-word, excerpting from templates circulated online by churches and political organizations opposed to vaccine mandates.
“They definitely used them,” said Chad Golden, the district’s executive director of human resources.
After submitting a request, each person had a one-on-one conversation with a member of the human resources department. They would discuss reasons for an exemption and likely accommodations should they get it.
“Every situation was different. It was based on what they shared in that conversation,” Golden said. “We had to be really careful about judging somebody’s religious beliefs. Who am I to judge somebody’s belief? It is really hard to doubt someone’s religious belief, regardless of what the religious belief is.”
A determination was made based on that conversation. Employees learned of decisions in writing a few days later. For most, the accommodations were wearing a KN95 mask provided by the district, maintaining social distancing and eating meals alone.
The Arlington School District, which had a nearly 83% vaccination rate last month, handled things slightly different.
Employees filled out and submitted a form based on a template provided by Reykdal’s office. Most decisions were made based on what was filed, not in-person conversations.
“I did not do a one-on-one with everyone. Our attorney’s recommendation for religious exemptions was that we did not need to do that,” said Eric DeJong, executive director of human resources in the Arlington district. Other districts in the state followed a similar approach, he said.
Some requests did get denied initially. DeJong said he had follow-up conversations with those individuals and found they met the standard.
Employees with exemptions are given a choice of accommodations. They can wear a KN95 mask or if they choose to wear a different type of mask, they need get tested every other week, he said.
Gary Sabol, the Arlington district spokesman, said the district’s percentage of exemptions is in line with figures from surrounding districts.
The Marysville method
Marysville issued 150 exemptions as of Oct. 18, the most of any district in the county. That represents 10.5% of its workforce; 89.1% were vaccinated at the time. The district’s decision-making process on exemptions mirrored Everett’s.
Employees submitted requests for a religious or medical exemption. Each then met face-to-face or virtually with Tracy Souza, the district’s director of safety and well-being.
“It wasn’t just that they could turn this form in and we would approve it. We had to sit down and have an interactive discussion,” Souza told the Marysville School Board on Nov. 3. The purpose, she said, “wasn’t to judge the belief. I was required to consider if the belief against the vaccine was sincerely held.”
Souza said if she approved a request she would then go over “expectations” — the district’s term for accommodations, which are to wear a KN95 mask, maintain six feet of social distance from others and be subject to random testing for COVID.
“If staff did not want to follow these expectations, I couldn’t approve their request,” she said.
Board members Paul Galovin and Keira Atchley disagreed with the testing requirement.
They said it would be more fair and increase safety to make all employees subject to random tests since a vaccinated person can carry the virus, too.
“How does this increase their safety as a non-vaccinated individual any moreso than not testing the vaccinated individual?” he said.
Neither attempted to have the board change the process.
Galovin voiced frustration that they couldn’t without risking the loss of millions of dollars in state funding. Reykdal has said districts found to not enforce the mandate, including discharging non-compliant employees, could see their state allotments withheld.
“Is the hammer out there for lack of a better characterization? Yes,” Charles Leitch, the Marysville School District’s attorney, told the board. “OSPI is taking a very, very aggressive tact right now on enforcement.”
Later in the discussion, Leitch contended OSPI is taking a look at how many exemptions a district is granting “because there are some districts out there that they are well aware of that went out and kind of rubber-stamped” approvals in violation of the proclamation.
Not true, a spokeswoman for Reykdal said.
“The governor’s proclamation requires school districts, as employers, to follow federal law and review all medical and religious exemption requests on a case-by-case basis,” Director of Communications Katy Payne wrote in an email. “OSPI is not aware of any district who did not follow the law when reviewing exemption requests.”
As of last week, OSPI had sent notices to two districts for not adhering to the guidelines of the proclamation, “and both districts came into compliance quickly,” she wrote.